Quote of the day, June 21 2011 — Please, let’s complicate things some more

‘At some point in the mid-1990s, academic authors in the humanities began to use the verb “complicate” when they didn’t have anything useful to say. They were always talking about how some new consideration or alleged insight “complicates” our understanding of this or that. “Such a view of early Victorian culture,” they’d say, “complicates our understanding of Tennyson’s metrical romances.” Well all right, one thought, but could we get to the part where you uncomplicate it? But they never did. They felt that it was sufficient to point out that something was more “complicated” than was hitherto thought.

Alan Ackerman’s “Just Words” falls firmly into that tradition. Mr. Ackerman, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, is typical of academics in the humanities in this regard: He feels that he has done his job by making his topic more confusing than it was—no need to clean up the mess. The book “challenges assumptions” and “raises questions” on page after page, but nowhere amid all the assumption-challenging and question-raising is there any sign of resolution.’

– Barton Swaim, “Don’t Blame Mary McCarthy”, Wall Street Journal, article dated June 21 2011, site accessed June 201 2011

No matter how complicated the circumstances or context of a situation, or all the permutations of the data, the people involved will have opinions & feeling about the matter. The people who hear about the situation and the data will likely have opinions & feelings about the matter too.

If someone states an opinion and you feel obligated to point out the issue may be more complicated than they realize, there are two possible reasons you might be saying this:

you think they do not have correct information or are missing some important details and you would like the opportunity to present additional information & views on the matter in an attempt to change their mind, or

you are looking for a quick ego boost and have decided the cheapest & quickest way is to demonstrate how much smarter you are than the person you are talking to, and you’re going to achieve this by showing how their viewpoint is overly simplistic and yours is not because you realize just how complicated the situation really is.

Truthfully, it’s almost always possible to make things more complicated. Even a statement like “nighttime is darker than daytime” can be complicated by getting into definitions of night, day, and darker, and citing examples of stadium lighting at sports events, light pollution in urban areas, and low-light natural conditions like daytime in the polar regions during winter.

You, the speaker who is bringing up how much more “complicated” an issue is, have to be aware of your own motivations when you open your mouth. If you really would like to present an alternate viewpoint on a topic & want your conversational partner to at least consider your viewpoint, then explain how your complications support your viewpoint — and be humble enough to accept that even with your explanation, the other person might not change their mind.

If you are constantly complicating things just to show how much smarter & more worldly you are than other people, please go away and don’t come back until you’ve come up with a better & more productive way to affirm your self-worth. Even if it’s needlework, at the end of the day you’ve made something that might be pretty or useful instead of just annoying everyone around you.

True story

I personally like fencing. Of the three fencing weapons — foil, saber & epee — I especially like saber. I had a co-worker who decided to come to my cubicle one day for the sole purpose of telling me he’d heard that I liked fencing and he didn’t think fencing was an actual sport. He knew this because he’d watched a college fencing match one afternoon years ago and it hadn’t looked like there was any risk of pain or injury in the matches, and he had read that any truly interesting sport or hobby keeps people’s attention because there is a threat of pain or injury to keep them focused. (Translation: I’m going to impress myself & hopefully you too by explaining how woefully uninformed & uneducated you are about the hobby you probably consider a sport in your woefully uneducated mind.)

I spent at least a half hour or maybe even an hour explaining the difference between the three weapons — short version: foil & epee poke people, saber can poke or can be swung, in thickness & stiffness of the blade the order from most flexible to stoutest is foil then saber then epee, and although I’ve never been around enough epee fencers to have a succinct description of what unpleasant personality elements they attract, I can say from experience that foil tends to attract the prudish & pedantic while saber tend to attract the sadists & berserkers.

I spent at least 15 minutes trying to explain to Mr. I-Know-More-About-Fencing-Than-You-Do-Because-Of-Something-Generic-I-Read-And-An-Afternoon’s-Observation-Years-Ago the types & varieties of bruises I’d gotten over the years from saber fencing, the one fencing buddy I’d known who had actually been stabbed by a broken saber blade, and incredible pain that can result from a flick hit.

All to no avail because Mr. Look-How-Smart-I-Am kept explaining how much more he knew about the matter than I did. He realized how complicated the whole situation was and I didn’t and it was up to him to explain to me how mistaken I was. I finally told him I kept my fencing gear in the back of my car because I didn’t pack it back & forth into my apartment every day, there were two sabers back there and two sets of gloves but only one mask & one jacket but since he hadn’t actually fenced before and I had, I would be happy to let him use the mask & jacket. And I would be more than happy to let him decide for himself if there was an actual threat of pain or injury when fencing.

That’s the only time in my life I’ve actually challenged someone to a duel. My co-worker finally shut up and found something else to do. Between dealing with him & various other co-workers who liked to “complicate” anything & everything just to prove how smart they are, I’ve gotten better at conversations like that. To quote my mother: “I have no idea how you do it, but you can take the most annoying run-at-the-mouth jackass out there and say two sentences to them and they’re gone without a word.”

So, speaking from experience and with utter & complete sincerity: for those of you who constantly tell everyone how much more “complicated” things are than it looks like, you’re not making yourself any friends. You’ll eventually attract a few fellow travelers who, like you, like to constantly complicate everything and anything because it gives all of you something to talk about and makes you feel smarter than everyone else around you. And you’ll probably never get physically assaulted because what you’re doing will most likely never become quite offensive enough someone will get so mad they’ll take a swing at you. But whatever impression of astounding intelligence & insight you think you are making on others and however much you think this is the key to popularity and respect, you are gravely mistaken.

One thought on “Quote of the day, June 21 2011 — Please, let’s complicate things some more

  1. This Ackerman guy sounds like a deconstructionist; folks like Derrida amuse me when they go around ripping the meaning out of everyone else’s words, but when someone misunderstands them, they take offense and say, “That’s not what I meant when I wrote that.” What’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.

    In academia you get these “complicated” conversations frequently. It always seemed to me that things got “complicated” when someone was scandalized by the simplest explanation. I was told, by a professor, shortly before finishing grad school with highest honors, that if I continued to cling to a certain view of origins, I would lose all academic credibility. I was tempted to point out that academic credibility was not my aim, but I just let it rest. You’ve got to pick your fights, and many times, it just isn’t worth fighting.

    You could have saved yourself about 55 minutes of wasted time by smacking that guy with the flat of your saber at the beginning and asking him if he was in pain.

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